Access Stuart Moulthrop’s “Deep Surface” here.
“Human voices wake us, and we drown.” Copyrighted in 2007, Stuart Moulthrop’s “Deep Surface” is available in the second volume of the Electronic Literature Collection. In the piece, one must point and click on the bar on the right to move the ball that represents where you, as the reader, are, in order to navigate the text and audio that appear below the surface. The text and audio go at a pre-determined pace, but you are limited by how much air you have remaining. At first you have a lifeline, that will bring you back up automatically, soon it ends, and though hints of what key to press to get more air without resurfacing periodically float by in the background, allowing for you to stay down longer, the magic key will change periodically without warning. There are short paragraphs, which appear letter by letter, as well as individual words and short phrases that periodically stream by, and a poem on the left that spans the entire depth but changes with each level. At the very bottom, an eerie, negative image of a man’s face appears, and in this general area seems to be most of the audio. The amount of what you’ve read and heard is embodied by the location of the two nude bodies looking out that appear once you drown. Depending on your point value, they may be completely submerged under the water, completely out, or somewhere in between, and each state comes with differing concluding statements.
The experience of reading “Deep Surface” reminds me of Hayles’ statement, “Hyper reading, which includes skimming, scanning, fragmenting, and juxtaposing texts, is a strategic response to an information-intensive environment, aiming to conserve attention by quickly identifying relevant information, so that only relatively few portions of a given text are actually read” (p. 12, How We Think). The work seems to convey the impossibility of reading everything deeply. The limited air supply forces one to either attempt to skim quickly as much as possible or focus on a few elements, the superficial ones closer to the surface easier to come to understand completely both in terms of content and in the feasibility of reading it at all. The point-click mode of interaction conflated with the wide variety of results also seems to illustrate the infinity possible with such a simple, ubiquitous process.
Moulthrop says he released this piece as a public service to train people how to read, and this idea of the piece as not so much a game but as a simulator also plays to Hayles’ notion that we must learn to read differently as text changes. Moulthrop seems to value practice and persistence in dealing with text in general and with its evolving nature. Through practice one can learn to interact with it better and amass more points. However Moulthrop points out in the instructions that staying in one place like a good reader to earn points is “a good way to miss out on everything else that’s going on.” Heidegger says in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” that any reproduction of art is lacking in “its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be” (p. 220). Though perhaps not quite as Heidegger meant, in “Deep Surface” each segment of text and audio has a limited window during which the reader can access it, and if they don’t it’s simply gone, thus subverting the old notion of a “good” reader. Though technically things on the web are there to stay, the chances of someone returning to something become diminished, and pages can get lost simply in the creation of new ones.
Though “Deep Surface” can relate to print reading, its form emphasizes the additional manipulations possible in electronic texts. The author seems to value reading and its potential, ultimately the piece seems to serve as a commentary on wrangling with the inundation of information that the web affords society, suggesting that there is no one “right” solution but also that time and practice will make such interactions increasingly more fluid and natural, as we learn to “breathe” in this new environment.